Medieval castles and quirky open-air museums. Mountains and ice caves. Weekend- break-perfect Bratislava. Cute children folk-dancing in brightly embroidered costumes. Beer that costs 25p a pint. There are lots of reasons to come to Slovakia, but strangely, this land-locked country at the heart of Europe is adamant about one thing: you should come here for the water.
No one said what’s good for you had to smell good, though. On the promise of the ultimate healing experience, I’m tiptoeing through whiffy sulphurous steam, lowering myself into water so hot I can hear my blood whistle and covering myself with black mud scooped up from its murky depths. Bubbling up from a vast underground lake here at the famed spa town of Piestany is hot, mineral-rich water that has been healing weary bones since the Middle Ages – its symbol (a man breaking his crutch over his knee) and slogan (‘surge et ambula’ – get up and walk) certainly make some lofty claims.
Tottering dizzily from the mudpool and into the stern care of a white-coated masseuse with knuckles like steamrollers, I’m subjected to a fantastically brutal pulverising that leaves me limp as Chris Martin’s handshake. If I ever surge et ambula again, it’ll be in a radically different fashion. The eastern European spa experience is pretty frill-free compared to the fluffy towels and recorded whalesong of most, but boy do you feel good at the end of it.
Value for money may seem like the principal draw at Slovakia’s spa resorts, but they also hark back to a glamorous period of history in which they were a playground for Europe’s rich and titled, a hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s social scene. Ferdinand’s enduringly popular queen Elizabeth – ‘Sissi’ to her fans, and considered the most beautiful woman of her time – was on her way to an appointment at Piestany when she was assassinated in 1898.
As Europe’s borders have changed, such Heat-worthy events have become lamentably infrequent in this amiable little country that peacefully gained its independence in 1993. All that hot water’s going nowhere, however, and the Slovakian love of getting wet has entered a new phase: the aquapark.
As tourism to the picturesque High Tatra mountains grows and direct flights are launched to the nearby city of Poprad, ski resorts aren’t the only ones hoping to benefit. Along with local rival Aqualandia, the success of Poprad’s AquaCity resort is testament to just how much people round these parts love their water. The story goes that Jan Telensky, Slovakia’s answer to Stelios, decided to build AquaCity when he tripped over a rusty pipe in the ground and was told that speculative drilling for natural gas had struck nothing but hot water. Today, that water – flowing naturally to the surface at around 49°C – is put to good use in a giant complex of pools, flumes and leisure facilities, the only resort in the world to use geothermal energy as its primary source.
The chlorine-scented, coma-inducingly warm air echoes with the sound of people ducking each other – this is Leisure Pool World, no escaping. But the ambitious Telensky intends to transform AquaCity into a holiday destination in its own right, with plans for a conference centre, eco-sphere and shopping complex. Jennifer Perry is a bright-eyed Southern belle who’s been drafted in to help make it happen.
I fight back the traumatic recollection of school swimming lessons and, armed with a plastic wristwatch that opens doors, gates and lockers, follow Perry on a tour of the facilities. The outdoor area is rampant with flirting youngsters, while in the Olympic-sized pool serious swimmers plow up and down like torpedoes. Reliving the inadequacy complex of primary school, I slink off to the changing rooms and resolve to opt instead to trial the ‘Vital World’ spa centre.
Whiffy steam: I’m back in familiar territory. Only this time it’s a futuristic, UV-lit cluster of chambers each offering its own revitalising experience. Passing the salt inhalation room, water grotto and tepidarium, I pull open a door to find a bikini-clad woman turning slightly blue in what appears to be a giant freezer. Excellent for the circulation, Perry confirms. A couple in their mid-twenties saunter past stark naked. I cough with embarrassment, attempting to blame it on the herbal inhalations. We’ve found that a lot of the German guests like to visit the sauna in the nude,” says Perry, tactfully. “We’re working on having nudity time slots.”
Intriguing though the concept of ‘nude hour’ is, as I fight my way back through the maze of brightly coloured plastic lockers, corridors, pools, zones and temperatures I suspect that my appreciation of AquaCity would be greater if I was the sort of person who looks at a waterslide and wonders if they’re allowed to go down headfirst. For now, I’m happy to console myself with the final test of Slovakia’s magic waters.
All that pure, mineral-rich H20 seems to do so much good for the system when you’re being blasted by it, steamed in it or immersed in it – surely it’ll do wonders if you actually drink it. The bottled stuff proving a bit too salty for my taste, though, I settle happily for a sample or two in beer form. It isn’t just the spas that are a bargain in this country: at 25p, a pint is the cheapest therapy I’ve ever had. There are lots of reasons to come to Slovakia.
• Direct flights to Poprad with SkyEurope (www.skyeurope.com) commence December 1. For more information on Slovakia, see www.slovakiatourism.sk. AquaCity: 01582-748 840; www.aquacityresort.com. Slovak Health Spa Piestany: +421 (0)33 775 7733; www.spa-piestany.sk.”